Is it time for yet another clock in baseball?
So it seems. The so-called Hot Stove season - as discussed on the latest episode of the Racing Presidents podcast - has been more of a slow burn once again this offseason, quietly stepping through the holidays with few significant signings.
January is here. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain available. Number of three-year deals signed: five. Number of four-year deals signed: one. Number of six-year deals signed: one. You know the latter since the Nationals supplied it to Patrick Corbin. Roughly 75 percent of the free agent market remains unsigned.
There’s no burst like the NBA delivers at 12:01 a.m. when free agency starts in its salary-cap league. Instead, early signings become a storyline, as they did this season when Mike Rizzo aggressively filled holes around the diamond for his club, because of their increasing rarity.
Which means we wait. Waiting leads to wonder. In this case, what can be done to expedite this process for all involved? And, how will this impasse impact the next collective bargaining agreement?
Boston Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski suggested at the Winter Meetings -- which delivered all the liveliness of a stone column -- a deadline should be considered. His main point centered on the lack of downtime for all involved. January has become a month for the big names to finally decide. That leaves just a handful of weeks until spring training. Team personnel arrives well ahead of players, who trickle into Florida camps the first and second week of February. That leaves no gap, no respite and produces news in droplets.
However, a deadline of any kind would have complications and need caveats. Top-tier agents and players want the market to be set before framing their deals. Owners want flexibility. Perhaps the factions most interested in a book-ended free agency period would be general managers and managers. They want to know what they have. Imagine if the deadline was Dec. 31. It would promote signings at the Winter Meetings. It would settle everyone before January (to Dombrowski’s point). It would create a countdown which would push baseball back into the news cycle. Picture the seconds clicking away with Harper and Machado still undecided. There would be a frenzy.
For now, the grinding markets of last winter and this offseason have players on alert. Agent Scott Boras joked in the middle of the summer that he blocked out last winter’s process when the word “collusion” leaked into the conversation because of how slow players were signed. Punctuating Boras’ point, and all other gripes about plodding free agency, was J.D. Martinez walking into Boston’s player development building in Fort Myers, Fla., on Feb. 21, 2018, 48 hours after he signed a five-year deal. He’s a Triple Crown candidate who couldn’t settle a contract until after players reported.
The process has percolated grand irritation among the players. Year by year, free agency has slowed. Long-term contracts have been reduced for various reasons. When Max Scherzer became a free agent after the 2014 season, he was surprised by how many teams didn’t want to provide a long-term deal to a Cy Young winner who never went on the disabled list in his six-plus major-league seasons. Nationals ownership eventually decided to gamble. Scherzer signed a seven-year deal in the third week of January.
“Free agency is weird, and it’s only gotten weirder,” Scherzer, now on the Major League Baseball Players Association’s executive subcommittee, told me in late September. “We used to see teams covet guys who had demonstrated they can play in the league for X amount of years and produce. Now all we hear about [with] every free agent... every team tries to tear him down and say he’s the worst player ever and can’t do it anymore.
“They’re trying to do everything they can to affect free agency, which has been our golden egg for so long. And, for us as players, the way the CBA things were negotiated when the owners asked for essentially price controls in the draft so that they wouldn’t be spending money on players in the draft so they would have more dollars to be able to spend on major league payroll, that hasn’t come to fruition the way MLB portrayed it.
“That’s frustrating because at the end of the day players -- in my belief -- the players and the owners have a 50-50 split over the dollars created in this game. As players, we would just like to make sure that relationship continues at a 50-50 rate.”
A fight is coming after the 2021 season. The CBA negotiated in 2016 expires then. During its five years, an increasingly slow roll in free agency has put players on alert, prompted executives to suggest framework be adjusted and produced new problems while attempting to solve old ones. As the calendar turns, the only assured thing is no one outside ownership thinks the current structure is working.
Listen to more on the Racing Presidents podcast.
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